Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

I have been longing to share my love of this piano piece by Frederic Chopin (1810-49). So much of his music will be well known to you, since his waltzes, etudes, nocturnes and mazurkas are played widely; less so, what I am posting about today, so I hope it will be something new to many.

Although Chopin did write some instrumental music, notably two concertos, he wrote nothing in his brief life which did not include the piano. And brief it was: he was never particularly healthy, even from a young age, causing Berlioz to observe that “he was dying all his life”. It was probably tuberculosis that killed him, in an apartment immediately opposite the hotel from where the late Diana, Princess of Wales, made her last fateful journey nearly 150 years later.

Chopin was refined, even delicate, impeccably dressed and mannered, somewhat at odds with the writer George Sand, a dumpier, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking sexual predator with whom he had a troublesome love affair, which did not end well. Although the woman who was probably the most central figure in his life, she was not even at his deathbed.

Chopin was a highly accomplished pianist who preferred the setting of the salons of Paris to the concert hall, and was quickly recognized for his talent – “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” was Schumann’s early assessment of a prodigy whom many viewed as the successor to Mozart. Apart from being born in Poland, there is nothing obviously nationalistic about his work, but it is filled with the broadest spectrum of emotions, always imbued with simple and delightful tunes, even if sometimes fiendishly difficult, as in today’s example.

Chopin wrote four ballades, a term he was the first to apply to a music composition, having been normally associated with poetry and song. The first of these is a piece full of drama, the impact of which grows on every hearing. It does not appear to have any particular reference or story behind it, but unquestionably you can detect a story of sorts unfolding, with elements of despair, yearning and hope all in the mix. It starts simply enough, with a joyful climactic moment a few minutes in, preceded by the sweetest of melodies; before launching into a blistering phase of speed and technical wizardry. The last eighty seconds, ending with an agonizing downward scale, will have you on the edge of your seat.

Unlike Vladimir Horowitz in this 1968 recording. Don’t despair in the first minute: the quality of the film is not great at the start, and it is by no means note-perfect; but his impassive, and expressionless, approach, somehow conveys a far greater understanding and enjoyment of this work than any back-arching ceiling-gazer. You may wonder what all the fuss is about at the opening, but perseverance will be rewarded.

Tenderness, drama, colour and extraordinary clarity. I make no apologies for calling on Horowitz: if ever there was a case of ‘less is more’, surely this is it.


 

This article first appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s own blog Manuscript Notes.

Nick worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children.

‘Divine Fire’ at Craxton Studios Hampstead, Saturday 3 November 2018

The fascinating story of Fryderyk Chopin and the authoress George Sand is brought vividly to life by Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator) in 7 Star Arts’ mixed-genre production ‘Divine Fire’.

Interwoven with some of Chopin’s most beautiful and popular piano works, ‘Divine Fire’ traces the relationship from their first meeting in Paris in 1836 until their parting in 1847. The story unfolds through a compelling, dramatic narration of events by the RSC and National Theatre actress Susan Porrett, interspersed with mood – evoking piano pieces – fiery scherzos, heart-rending ballades, stirring Polonaises and poignant Nocturnes – played by the great Chopin interpreter Viv McLean.

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‘An absorbing, moving and beautifully presented evening of words and music’

‘Divine fire’ was Sand’s own description of the intensity of her attraction to Chopin, suggesting a love that transcended the purely physical to a more spiritual plane, a meeting of bodies and minds.

The concert takes place at Craxton Studios in Hampstead, a fine example of English Arts and Crafts architecture and interior design. Originally built for an artist, the house was the long-time home of Harold Craxton, acclaimed concert pianist and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. Craxton’s home became a creative hub for musicians, artists and writers – a tradition which continues to this day as the studio is regularly used for concerts, auditions, recordings and filming.

Viv McLean performs on Harold Craxton’s own Blüthner grand piano.

Divine Fire at Craxton Studios, Saturday 3 November at 7.30pm

‘The great strength of this format is the subtle interweaving of words and music…..Viv McLean’s understated, modest delivery always allows the music to speak for itself, while Susan’s words lend greater focus, encouraging us to listen to the music even more attentively.’

Read an interview with actress Susan Porrett about the creation of Divine Fire

Guest article by Ian Flint, a pianist and piano teacher based in North London. It was originally published on pianoteachernorthlondon.com.

Chopin’s extraordinary Ballade No.1 seems to inspire serious students of the piano, whether dedicated hobbyists or aspirant professionals, like no other single piano work. Its role at a pivotal moment in Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist has doubtless contributed to its celebrated status. More recently the sense of Zeitgeist around this masterpiece has been further enhanced by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s book in which he outlines his endeavours to learn the piece against all the odds (Play It again: An Amateur Against the Impossible).

This article assesses the main recordings of the work available on YouTube, with the aim of helping you locate the most compelling performances. Given the range of richly rewarding interpretations on offer, from widely divergent artistic personalities, it’s clear that this piece of music truly inspires many of the world’s greatest pianists too. They are in good company: Chopin apparently told Schumann that this Ballade was his favourite among his own works.

Maurizio Pollini

Having long occupied an exalted place amongst interpreters of this work, Pollini is well represented on YouTube, mainly in recordings taken from ‘live’ performances. If Pollini is at his best when he combines his commanding brilliance with a sense of space and a willingness to yield to the more lyrical impulses of the music, one of these recordings is pre-eminent. This is indeed a magisterial account, granitic, turbulent when the music demands, but also with an enchanting sense of reverie in the second subject, truly faithful to Chopin’s sotto voce marking. Throughout the work Pollini’s phrasing comes in long, organic paragraphs, contributing to an inexorable sense of the work’s overall architecture.

 

Sviatoslav Richter

Richter is also well-served on YouTube, mostly via recordings of various concerts from the 1960’s. Richter’s interpretation remains fairly consistent across these performances. His introduction is restrained rather than consciously arresting, and leads to a subdued main theme, cowed with sorrow. In the midst of such a weighty reading, his rather insouciant way with the second limb of the second subject in the recapitulation (from bar 180) is rather quirky – hardly the con forza stipulated by the composer. But in general Richter is fully responsive to the unfolding drama, and the denouement is suitably demonic.

 

Vladimir Horowitz

Much less consistent are the various YouTube versions of Vladimir Horowitz, again from ‘live’ performances. The most impressive of these is a video of a Carnegie Hall concert. As might be expected from Horowitz, this is a big-boned rendition, but there are also many charming individual moments of lyricism and a delightfully teasing quasi-waltz (from bar 140). Even in this performance, though, there is sometimes an unwarranted heavy-handedness, a certain lumpiness in the phrasing and rhythmic relationships:

These less appealing characteristics are more pronounced on the various other Horowitz performances on YouTube. Indeed one version (posted by ‘boomzxz’) is nothing short of a travesty.

 

Arthur Rubinstein

The countless admirers of Arthur Rubinstein would cite the sheer individuality of his poetic sensibility as one of the crowning glories of his playing. His recording of the 1st Ballade, dating from 1959, certainly has those moments of insight, but some will feel that at times his rubato and tonal shading step across the border from revelatory to wilful. For example, the way he curtails the very first note of the piece or flattens out of the triplet in bar 4 seem difficult to justify. Chopin was a perpetual revisor, and was on occasion even capable of sending substantially varied versions of the same work to his different publishers, so it would be ill-advised to argue for a frigid fidelity to the text in the performance of his music. However, he notated the rhythm of this Ballade’s introduction so precisely that it seems appropriate to adhere to his written intentions.

 

Alfred Cortot

Whatever are Rubinstein’s eccentricities, they pale into insignificance when set alongside Cortot’s performance. There is certainly something of the tortured artist here, and Cortot’s rhythmic liberties are at times so spasmodic that he could scarcely be seen as a prime contender. However, if one can disregard his distortions of Chopin’s text in, for example, the second subject, one can be drawn into a quasi-improvisatory dreamscape that is oddly intoxicating.

 

Lang Lang

Yet pianists from a bygone era such as Cortot don’t have a monopoly on extreme expressive freedom. The ‘live’ video of Lang Lang reminds us that not all today’s pianists are sanitized in comparison with their predecessors. Lang Lang allows himself more poetic (and sometimes textual) licence than most of his colleagues, past and present. There is fervour and panache in abundance; indeed the overall effect might be mesmerising to someone who had never heard the piece before. For those more familiar with the composer’s score and the general stylistic history of Chopin playing, some aspects of his interpretation are likely to be puzzling at best.

 

Claudio Arrau

For more convincing examples of rhythmic flexibility one might turn to Claudio Arrau. Of the many versions available on YouTube, recorded at various stages of his career, perhaps the most consistently fulfilling is one dating from 1953. Here, his way with the third phrase of the main theme (bars 12-14) or the apogee of the second subject (bars 79-80), to give just two examples, is very rubato indeed, but seems to fit perfectly in the context. Indeed, Arrau’s second theme in general is one of the most exquisitely contoured to be found anywhere. It is true that Arrau is less scintillating than many in the more bravura passages of the work, but this is a performance to treasure for the beauty and gravitas of its musical soul.

 

Martha Agerich

In many ways Martha Agerich’s interpretation is the polar opposite of Arrau’s, in her characteristic emphasis on the volatile, tempestuous aspects of the work. Yet Agerich also finds room for a winningly tender second subject. Another strength of this performance is the dazzling clarity of her fingerwork in the central section, giving a wonderful sense of caprice.

 

Evgeny Kissin

This Russian artist strikes a fine balance between respect for the score and apparent spontaneity. Individual phrases are lovingly sculpted and intelligently related to each other; this thoughtful approach shines, for example, in his very organic transition between the first and second subjects (from bar 36). There is much profundity in both main themes (although the slightly halting quality in the first theme is somewhat curious), and the central section pulsates with verve and playfulness.

Unlike many others, Kissin observes Chopin’s con forza (bar 180) in the recapitulation of the second subject, giving this section a great sense of élan. The main body of the coda is not utterly relentless; instead he withdraws at the beginning of certain phrases, both tonally and rhythmically. Rather than detracting from the drama, this seems to magnify the ultimate annihilation.

 

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli,

In a studio version captured on video, Michelangeli offers an aristocratic reading, understated and seemingly effortless. There’s not much red-blooded passion here, and the performance isn’t free of his ‘left hand before right’ mannerism, but there are substantial compensations, notably an irresistibly languid second subject.

There are also various ‘live’ performances by Michelangeli (posted by ‘RabidCh’ and ‘incontrario motu’ among others) which are by no means carbon copies of each other, but in general he seems more emotionally involved and allows himself more expressive freedom (not always to the music’s advantage) than in the video recording.

 

Vladimir Ashkenazy

The main recording by Ashkenazy, taken from his Decca box set, has that emotionally searching quality that is one of the hallmarks of this artist. The main theme is mournfully ruminative, setting the tone for a performance full of pathos, perhaps sometimes at the expense of propulsion. Yet there is plenty of the requisite majesty and drama too, and Ashkenazy’s peerless tonal refinement makes for a deeply satisfying listening experience.

There is an earlier ‘live’ performance by Ashkenazy, recorded in Moscow in 1963. This has much more of the impetuosity of youth (it’s over a minute shorter), the expression is in general more overt and the ferocity of the coda even more seismic. The recording quality is admirably clear but shows its age in an occasional hard edge to the piano sound.

 

Murray Perahia

Perahia gives a powerful and insightful account. Some of the underlying chords in the first theme (especially in the recapitulation) are a little dry and obtrusive, but this is a minor quibble. This is a highly convincing performance, poised and intelligent, titanic when necessary but devoid of hyperbole. Other versions might be more captivating in individual aspects of the work, but few achieve Perahia’s cohesion, both in the relationships between individual phrases and the logic of the overarching structural framework. This masterful grasp of the musical narrative is perfectly illustrated, for example, in the transition (bars 188-194) leading to the final stricken intoning of the first theme.

 

Emil Gilels

Gilels has an imposingly strident manner in this work, sometimes to good effect, especially in an exciting ‘live’ performance from Leningrad in 1963. There are moments of melting beauty, but in general the emotions are conveyed quite forcefully, and sometimes the sound is a little too stark for the context, for example towards the end of the first theme.

 

Umi Garrett

There is a remarkable ‘live’ recording by the 14-year-old Umi Garrett. This is not just a question of gaping at a Wunderkind, and musing sagely if the child prodigy will be able to mature into a genuine artist. On the contrary, this is already a fully-fledged performance, full of artistic sensibility as well as marvellous dexterity, one with which to try a ‘blind test’ on your musical friends.

 

Jorge Bolet

Bolet is represented by a video recording, made late in his career, and indeed this performance has a distinct sense of a master looking back. Although many other pianists engulf us more remorselessly in the work’s turmoil, this performance is suffused with a haunting sadness that perhaps compels more deeply than some other more extrovert readings.

 

Andrei Gavrilov

Another performance of impeccable artistry comes from Andrei Gavrilov. From his suitably portentous introduction Gavrilov takes us on an absorbing journey through the work’s ever-changing landscapes. This is music-making of the utmost sincerity, and Gavrilov always directs his stupendous physical prowess to the service of the music. Towards the end of a titanic coda, his pronounced rubato and the sheer slowness of the final octave descent (perhaps too melodramatic for some listeners) crown the work with an epic fatalism. Unfortunately the rather muffled sound quality of the recording is not commensurate with the quality of the playing.

 

Krystian Zimerman

The opening bars in Zimerman’s hands immediately set the tone for a performance of great grandeur and finesse. Every musical gesture is delivered with great conviction. His rubato is highly idiomatic and his phrasing wonderfully nuanced, although he is less ethereal than some in the more introspective episodes, especially the initial statement of the second subject. The central A major statement of the second theme is toweringly imperious. Overall, Zimerman’s interpretation has a severity that seems entirely appropriate, no more so than in the main body of the coda which is relentlessly pulverising rather than frenetic, leading with gripping inevitability to a bone-crushing final catastrophe.

 

So who are the best interpreters of Chopin’s First Ballade?

With such a range of outstanding performances to choose from it is genuinely difficult to select one definitive version. The most poignantly lyrical performances are not necessarily the most riveting in the more magmatic or mercurial aspects of the work. Ashkenazy, Gavrilov, Kissin, Pollini, Perahia and Zimerman are amongst the most enthralling communicators of Chopin’s kaleidoscope of emotions. But if forced to take just one performance to the proverbial desert island, it would be Krystian Zimerman.

 

About the Author:

Ian Flint is a highly experienced and versatile pianist and teacher, who has established a thriving piano teaching practice in London, where he specialises in coaching adult pianists. Inspired by his own Russian-influenced training, he is extremely dedicated to developing each student’s physical approach to promote maximum freedom, agility and beauty of sound. For more of his articles and additional information about piano lessons, go to pianoteachernorthlondon.com.